AFTER ALL THE huffing and puffing in Congress about record unemployment, you would have expected more of a fight over legislation to create jobs. Both the Senate and House had made a bid for job creation programs in their versions of the continuing resolution. But as soon as the president made a threatening gesture, Congress simply folded its hand. Why?

Desire to go home for Christmas may have diminished congressional taste for a prolonged fight. But there was also a lack of conviction on the Hill that jobs bills do anything more than redistribute unemployment. No one did much serious thinking about how the government can create new jobs and for whom they should be provided.

House Democrats concentrated their attention on figuring out a jobs program that might be peddled to their colleagues. Their proposed $5.4 billion package would have spread its money around a long list of existing federal, state and local programs that already have strong constituencies. The list of proposed projects included repairing veterans' hospitals, constructing military housing and prisons, purchasing domestic automobiles for the government, protecting parks and wildlife and working on rural water development projects--a veritable smorgasbord of political plums.

The Democrats--and the Senate, which approved a smaller-scale $1.2 billion version--thus handily avoided any taint of the "make-work" that the president so frequently deplores. But they opened up another question. What sense does it make for Congress to be putting more money into these projects with one hand while it is cutting back on the normal appropriations for all these activities with the other?

It is true, of course, that federal, state and local governments are currently laying off people engaged in all these activities. But what, apart from a broad decision to reorder government spending priorities, would justify providing money to hire back laid-off workers or put others in their place? One justification might be that the new money, by placing limits on wages, would produce more jobs than the old. But that would offend the unions, and Congress (witness its extension of the Davis-Bacon provisions in the gas tax legislation) is not about to do that.

Another justification might be providing on-the- job experience--mixed with basic education and training--to unemployed people who are not likely to find jobs even if the economy revives. But that would require careful design and management, and the Labor Department, having just dismantled a similar program, is dead set against any effort that mixes training with paid work in government jobs. Instead it is concentrating on encouraging private industry to train more workers to fill its needs.

So don't mourn for the "close call" that saw the jobs programs lose. Congress never meant to pass them in the first place.